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Astoria breakfast buffet (from their site)
Dorothea’s notes record that the breakfast buffet at the Best Western Astoria was the best we’ve ever been offered, on this trip or any other: meats, cheeses, breads of all sorts, fresh fruits both cut and whole, yogurts, cereals, many sweets (cakes, cherry strudel, doughnuts, croissants), eggs, pancakes and maple syrup from Canada (bearing the brand name “Vermont”), sausages, grilled mushrooms — and champagne. (I don’t recall that we drank any champagne, though my memory may be untrustworthy.) The picture is from the hotel’s website, and may have been fancied up a bit for advertising purposes, but in fact this is pretty much how we remember it.

We finished breakfast at about 10:15, went upstairs to pack and prepare for our journey, and left the hotel at about noon. Our train wasn’t due to leave until 1:15, but the day was as warm and pleasant as the day before had been, and we wanted to walk to the station. It was hardly more than a long block away, but with all our luggage we didn’t want to hurry. We had found Zagreb an interesting and congenial city, and wished that we could have stayed a little longer.

Zagreb railway station (photo found on the Web)
The walk turned out to be pleasurable and easy, and we reached the station with plenty of time to spare. We had bought our tickets before leaving home, through the website of an American firm called RailEurope, and in the Habsburg splendor of the palatial station, we took them to a ticket window where we showed them to a clerk. Assured that all was in order, we went out to the nearly deserted platform and sat down to wait for the train.

It soon showed up. Train service between Zagreb and Ljubljana is frequent, since both lie on one of the main routes between Western Europe (via Munich and Innsbruck) and Istanbul (via Belgrade and Sofia). It isn’t the only such route — there’s another that goes through Budapest and crosses neither Slovenia nor Croatia — but it’s busy enough to support a good number of passenger trains every day.

We shared our first-class compartment with three other travelers: an Australian couple we had met while waiting on the platform, and a man from northern Europe who now lives in Slavonia. He had interesting, though somewhat pessimistic, things to say about the cultural and economic situation in that eastern part of Croatia. Both Serbs and Croats live there again, as they did before the wars of the early 90s, but mutual antagonism persists — though no longer in a violent form. He thought the government had missed an opportunity to overcome this problem by allowing each community to run its own school system. Perhaps this is true, but segregated schools are more likely a symptom than a cause of the cultural division. Changing the schools might eventually change the culture, but it would be impossible to make such a change until both communities are willing to accept it. I couldn’t help thinking of Northern Ireland, where it seems to me that — despite the progress made there since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 — it will take more than one generation before two peoples who differ so greatly in not only in religion and culture, but in the ways they interpret their mutual history, will be willing even to consider educating their children in the same schools. All of these sources of division also exist between Serbs and Croats.

Our informant also felt that many Croats, in Slavonia at least, have yet to shake off the cynicism regarding economic matters that was engendered during the Communist period. He told us about some expatriate foreign investors who opened a restaurant in a Slavonian city, and found that many of the local people they hired seemed to regard all employers as exploiters who deserved to be exploited in their turn. Although the restaurant prospered at first, eventually its employees were stealing so much that the investors gave up and sold it. They had followed a deliberate policy of hiring people from both communities, but the new Croat owners fired all the Serbs immediately. Not long afterwards the restaurant went out of business.

Ustaše flag at a football match in 2008
He also suggested that the Ustaše is still alive and active — no longer in politics, but as an underworld power in the country. It was difficult, he said, to get any business done in Slavonia without dealing with them. (Once again I thought of Northern Ireland.) The Australian said that the Ustaše had a similar influence in the large Australian community of expatriate Croats. As he was not himself a member of this community, I assume that his information came from newspapers, where it might have been sensationalized, but nationalism and some of its uglier offspring have crossed oceans more than once in the past.

Criminal or not, the Ustaše is still associated with Croatian nationalism in its darker aspect. This small photo, found on the Web, shows Croatian football fans displaying an Ustaše banner at a match with Turkey in 2008, an act that drew censure from antiracist organizations.

Our conversation, sobering but interesting, made the trip go quickly. When we arrived in Ljubljana 2½ hours later, it was still a warm, pleasant afternoon, and (being old Ljubljana hands by now) we decided to walk down Slovenska cesta, luggage in tow, to the Hotel Slon. The clerks at the reception desk greeted us like old friends and apologized for being unable, because the hotel was full, to give us the best room. Nevertheless, the one we got was much more comfortable than the previous one. It had few windows, but the air conditioner was effective, and we were well pleased.

Tina and Dorothea at Zlata Ribica
We had thought about going next door to Gostilna Šestica for dinner, but it turned out to be closed on Sunday. However, we were not in the least reluctant to return to Zlata Ribica once again, even though we had eaten there twice during our previous stay. Tina, our original waitress, remembered us and found us a table outside in the little Fishermen’s Square between Zlata Ribica and Abecedarium. The tables between the two restaurants were crowded with diners. The evening air was clear, neither too cool nor too warm, and we ate our meal under an umbrella — unnecessary, except for its minor contribution to the atmosphere — while a duo of guitarists (engaged by Abecedarium) played softly for everyone. I took a picture of Tina and Dorothea together, and we promised to send her a copy when we got home. (We tried to do that, but unfortunately the email address she gave us didn’t work.)

Our meal started with a shared portion of tagiatelle (egg noodles) with truffles and cream sauce. We both had fillet of sea bass; Dorothea’s was grilled and mine baked with a rosemary- and olive-flavored sauce. There were also grilled vegetables and crisp fried potatoes. Again we had a good “green” wine from Slovenia’s Vipavska valley, and we ordered a dessert wine, based on the Pino Grigio grape, to go with our gibanica. Before we left, Dorothea went to compliment the guitarists and bought a CD from them.

Fishermen's square and restaurants on our last night
As we went back across the river, I took a picture of the restaurants and the square. The exposure was too long for me to hold the camera steady — and no, the wine had nothing to do with that — but even in this blurry state it gives me a good feeling, so here it is anyway.

Heading back to the hotel, we strolled for the last time through Prešeren Square, and stopped at the big sladoled stand on one side of it. Nearly all their ice cream seemed to be fruit-flavored, but we managed to locate my favorite, ležnik (hazelnut), and čokolada (no translation needed) for Dorothea.

We were glad that we had this evening to bid a quiet farewell to Ljubljana, which has permanently established itself as one of our favorite places in the world.

Swiss Air logo
Our flight home was scheduled to depart at 2:30 the following afternoon. We arranged for seats on an airport shuttle bus that picks people up at the various hotels. Dorothea made no notes that day, and neither of us can remember very much about it. We definitely did get on the right plane, and it got us to Zurich in time for our luggage to make it onto our Swiss Airline flight to Boston. The scheduled time layover time in Zurich was only an hour and 45 minutes, which was short enough to have caused us some anxiety on behalf of the bags, but we chose to put our faith in Swiss efficiency, and it was rewarded. (We might not have quite been so trusting if the short layover came at the beginning of our vacation, but the danger that we might have to wait a couple of days at home for our dirty laundry to catch up with us was a risk we were willing to take.)

The plane was scheduled to land in Boston at 7:50 pm. I have a vague recollection that it was somewhat later than this, and that it was around midnight when the taxi from Logan Airport delivered us at the door. But I may be remembering a different trip. It has taken me so long to put this website together that I’m now trying to recall a jet-lagged arrival that took place almost two years ago. I do remember that I was signed up for an African drumming workshop that began a day and a half after our arrival, and that my efforts were enfeebled by the lingering effects of the long east-to-west flight: I could barely distinguish my right hand from my left (a task that I find challenging enough at the best of times).